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Annie Awards Check Into Virtual Reality With Inaugural Prize

The Annie Awards, recognizing a need to celebrate all the animated content being made these days in virtual reality, has created a category this year to honor that work.

Until now, VR content had to create a 2D version and, in some cases, play in theaters, in order to become eligible for awards recognition, which can be a time-consuming and costly process. So ASIFA-Hollywood, the organization behind the Annies, set up a VR lab at the Burbank HQ so that judges could view the content as it was meant to be seen.

“A flat version of VR is one thing,” ASIFA-Hollywood exec director Frank Gladstone notes. “VR itself is something different.” Making sure the judges saw the content as it was meant to be seen was paramount. “It should be seen the way it was produced,” he says.

The setup at the ASIFA-Hollywood offices was costly. “It’s a big expense,” Gladstone says. “But we’re going to bit the bullet and do it.”

The inaugural Annie nominees for VR production are Google Spotlight Stories’ “Age of Sail,” directed by John Kahrs; Sundance 2018 selection “BattleScar,” directed by Nico Casavecchia and Martin Allais; Baobab Studios’ “Crow: The Legend,” directed by Eric Darnell, pictured above; Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg’s “MindPalace,” directed by Carl Krause and Dominik Stockhausen; and Polyarc’s “Moss,” which is a VR game.

The Annies will be presented Feb. 2 at UCLA’s Royce Hall at 7 p.m. For the entire nomination list, see annieawards.org.

For the nominated filmmakers, VR was the only way they wanted to tell their stories.

“ ‘MindPalace’ explores the emotional landscape of a break up. The possibility of VR gives us a virtual space in which we can experience this very intimate moment in a couple’s relationship,” Stockhausen says. “It was about establishing personal spaces and then invading them.” He’s ready to do more. “The potential for storytelling with VR is incredibly exciting to me. The role of the audience has caught my attention especially.”

Stockhausen and Krause will be coming from Germany to attend the Annie Awards ceremony. “We were overwhelmed and honored,” says Krause of the nomination.

“BattleScar,” about a teen’s introduction to the punk scene in the 1970s, enjoyed a successful festival run. “Hearing about the [Annie Award] nomination triggered a mixture of nervousness and deep, deep satisfaction,” say Casavecchia and Allais in a joint statement. VR was a new and exciting endeavor for them. “The idea of participating in the creation of a new artistic language is extremely unusual,” they say. “Immersive entertainment is being shaped right now, the narrative conventions are yet to be set and it’s fertile ground to develop new ideas on how a story could be told.”

The category isn’t just for VR films, as the makers of “Moss” can attest. “‘Moss’ is an interactive narrative production as much as it is a video game,” explains Polyarc animation director Richard Lico. “One of our primary goals for ‘Moss’ was to immerse the ‘reader’ in a VR world, building an emotional bond with a virtual character. Quill, the protagonist of ‘Moss,’ delivers many unique performances in both diorama and book settings preceding and interspersed within gameplay moments.”

For Baobab Studios, “Crow,” about a colorful bird who sacrifices everything he believes matters most to him in order to make the world a better place, was a passion project. “We’re passionate about ‘Crow’ because of its cultural importance and universal themes of community, self-sacrifice, and the interconnectedness of all humans,” explains Baobab co-founder Maureen Fan. The Native American-based tale features a diverse, top-tier voice cast, including John Legend (who exec produced), Oprah Winfrey, Constance Wu, Diego Luna, Tye Sheridan and Liza Koshy as well as Native American actors and activists Sarah Eagle Heart and Randy Edmonds. “Crow” is the indie VR studio’s third project following “Asteroids!” and “Invasion!,” which each won Daytime Emmys for interactive production.

Darnell says he’s happy more VR projects are being made. “One of the things we’re focusing on is doing great content and I hope everybody is,” he says. “When anybody does great content, I don’t see that as competition. I see it as good for all of us. We need as much great content as we can possibly have. It’s great for our industry and our medium and we welcome it.”

Kahrs, who won an Oscar for his 2012 animated short “Paperman,” agrees. He was new to VR when he made “Age of Sail,” which tells the tale of a lonely old sailor (voiced by Ian McShane) who finds new meaning to life after saving a girl who fell off a passing passenger ship. But the director sees great potential in his new medium. “The energy in VR is coming from the filmmakers side right now,” he says. “They are pushing it forward. Whether the industry feels one way or the other about it, it feels like there’s a lot of interesting content and a lot of new content being done. In my own modest way, I want to be able to be a part of that energy of pushing it, changing what people think about it.”

 

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